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    Middle East
     Jan 3, 2008
Sneak peek at a desert Armageddon
By David Isenberg

WASHINGTON - Millions of words have been written about Iran's nuclear program and how terrible it will be for not only the Persian Gulf and Middle East regions, but the entire world, if it obtains nuclear weapons. But there has been one underlying question that nobody has asked, let alone answered; namely, what would actually happen if there was a nuclear war between Iran and another country?

Perhaps the monumental destruction that would accompany any nuclear exchange helps explain people's reluctance to discuss that scenario. Yet during the Cold War people not only discussed

it but a veritable industry was built around parsing the literal fallout if deterrence should fail. Indeed, it was Herman Kahn, who founded the Hudson Institute, who in 1965 wrote the book On Escalation, which included an escalation ladder, whose final and 44th step was "spasm or insensate war".

In a somewhat similar spirit, a recently released briefing has been making waves. Compiled by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), it explored a series of conflict scenarios, such as Iran vs Israel, Iran vs the United States and Syria vs Israel. The conflicts are assumed to take place between 2010 and 2020.

The briefing is turning heads because it was written by Anthony Cordesman, who was a former director of intelligence assessment in the US Secretary of Defense office. He also holds the Arleigh A Burke chair in strategy at CSIS and has done numerous assessments of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East.

Despite all the concern over Iran's ability to make nuclear weapons in the future, its hypothetical forces are not that formidable, as nuclear arsenals go. In the briefing it is assumed to have less than 50 nuclear weapons, most of them fission, possible some of them boosted, ie, fusion weapons. Most of them range in the 20 to 30 kiloton (KT)yield, with some having a 100 KT yield. For delivery it has 100 Shahab 3 missiles, as well as various planes and some cruise missiles. It is also assumed to have some chemical weapons.

Because Iranian nuclear weapons are assumed to be less accurate and of lower yield than Israel's, they are assumed to require more weapons per target, perhaps three to five. Also, as lower yield nuclear weapons require more strikes, Iran's forces would be used up more quickly trying to destroy Israeli targets than would be the reverse case.

Israel, on the other hand, is assumed to have over 200 nuclear weapons, both fission and fusion. While most of them are in the 20 to 100 KT range, some have a 1 megaton yield. They can be delivered by 100 Jericho missiles or on advanced aircraft such as the F-15, F-16 or the Joint Strike Fighter. Israel has, at least against chemical weapons, a meaningful civil defense.

Syria has no nuclear weapons but is assumed to have chemical weapons such as mustard gas and nerve agents and anthrax biological weapons.

Both Israel and Iran, much like the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, are faced with choices over whether to launch preventive or preemptive attacks or live under deterrence and mutual assured destruction force postures. Syria has the choice of linking with or separating itself from Iran, and being a passive or active threat.

The possible war scenarios include:
  • Israeli prevention, preemption of Iran
  • US prevention, preemption of Iran
  • Arms race; war of intimidation
  • Crisis "management"
  • Iranian-Israeli exchange
  • Syrian 'wild card'
  • Iran nuclear, US conventional
  • Iran nuclear, US nuclear
  • State actor covert bioterrorism, suitcase nuclear

    Both sides have the choice of attacking counterforce, countervalue or counterpopulation targets. Counterforce is an attack on the enemy's military forces, particularly its strike and retaliatory capabilities. Countervalue is an attack on the enemy's economy to punish or deny recovery capability. Counterpopulation is an attack on the enemy population to punish, deny recovery capability or destroy it.

    One thing that is immediately apparent is that no matter what the scenario, given Iran's limited targeting and damage assessment capability, limited point defense and total lack of civil defense, is that in all scenarios Iran loses; as in ceasing to exist as a functioning state.

    Even under a limited counterforce scenario where not more than 10 Iranian cities are attacked (Tabriz, Qazvin, Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Kerman. Qom, Ahwaz, Kermanshah), though Israel has the ability to attack all major Iranian cities, the casualties range from 16 to 28 million. The briefing states, "Iranian recovery is not possible in the normal sense of the term."

    Iran, because of its lower yield and less accurate weapons, would try and strike two major Israeli urban areas, Haifa and the Ashod-Tel Aviv-Yafo axis. Such a strike would inflict 200,000 to 800,000 prompt deaths. In that scenario, Israeli recovery is considered "theoretically possible" in population and economic terms.

    In an Israeli-Syrian exchange, the number of Israeli casualties is assumed to be the same, 200,000 to 800,000, as those inflicted in a war with Iran. As Syria has no nuclear weapons, this indicates that in the CSIS scenarios the greater number of deaths would result from Syria's biological weapons.

    Syria, on the other hand, would suffer 6 to 18 million prompt deaths. As Syria has a maximum of 11 cities with over 80% of the population, Israel would easily have enough weapons to target each city with three nuclear weapons.

    In this scenario, Israeli recovery is considered "very possible" in population and economic terms.

    Although if Iran gets to the point that it has a substantial and dispersed force, the Israel ability to launch a preventive attack is assumed to be gone. Even a preemptive attack becomes more difficult as it must deny the capability for a single retaliatory strike.

    Israel's ability to "ride out" an Iranian attack is assumed to rest on several factors, such as the ability of its own Arrow missile defense system, use of US Patriot-3 missile defense systems, and confidence in its own intelligence and warning abilities, as well as its own launch on warning and launch under attack capabilities.

    Some of the same constraints apply to the United States, although due to its far greater military capabilities it can launch broad suppression rather than pinpoint strikes and it has less need to use nuclear weapons against hardened targets. It also has a greater ability to do restrikes and follow-on attacks than Israel.

    While the CSIS study cautions that its scenarios are designed "to test possible contingencies, not create predictions" and that the data is very nominal and the effects data extremely uncertain, the results can only be viewed as horrifying. Bear in mind that those effects are counted in terms primarily of those directly killed, and say nothing about the long-term death rate, due to radiation exposure or destruction of infrastructure, let alone political and economic effects.

    Despite Israel's ability to inflict greater destruction on Iran and Syria it still suffers enough damage that the CSIS briefing concludes: The "war game" paradox: The only way to win is not to play.

    1. For the report, click here

    David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs, sento@earthlink.net

    (Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)
  • Eyeball to eyeball in the Persian Gulf
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    Sep 12, 2007

    War games, mind games or the real deal?
    Jul 14, 2007



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